The Art of Saying No

The word “no” is by far one of the most difficult words in our vocabulary (but easy to spell!). You hate to hear it, but more importantly, you hesitate to say it. It’s a powerful word and I think it’s underutilized. No one wants to be the bad guy, and no one wants to face the repercussions of being on either side of the word.

It’s powerful enough to ruin someone’s life, if only temporarily. Take a marriage proposal for example – hearing an unexpected “no” can send someone reeling to the point of depression in the depths of all that is sad in life. And you don’t want to be the cause of that, so you’ll say yes and you’ll convince yourself that “yes” is the correct answer. I think this has to be the source of at least some part of why the divorce rate in America is so high.  We’re afraid of the word no.  It’s an unacceptable word.

Let’s tie this back to something relevant to this blog – work.  Work isn’t exactly the same as marriage, but the two things consume the better portion of your life, and you often find yourself married to your work anyway.  I bet you wish you could’ve said no to that proposal.

At work, it looks good to be a “yes man.”  Your superiors love that they can always count on you to take on a task, even if you don’t have the capacity to do it (either with time or aptitude).  Some of us can manage being overloaded well, but most of us can’t.  There are only so many hours in a day, and at some point, you’d probably like to enjoy your life.

What’s the solution? You need to practice saying “no.” Strangely, it’s kind of an art.  “No” doesn’t have to be harsh and straightforward.  There was an excellent article posted recently at Zen Habits titled, “Kill Busywork: The One Skill to Focus On What Matters.”  The article discusses the difference between bad work, good work, and great work, and talks about how and why “great work” is the work you should focus on, although it isn’t possible to spend all your time with “great work.”  There are a couple great passages in the article relevant to my post here:

At the heart of doing more Great Work are the choices you make. Not just what you are saying Yes to. But – and this follows your Yes just as the back of the hand follows the front – what you are also saying No to.

That sounds simple enough, but you know it’s not.

Sure, it’s easy to say a knee-jerk Yes to whatever comes along. We all do that. It’s much harder to be mindful and thoughtful and clear and bold and courageous as to what you really want to say Yes to.

And for most of us, it’s a nightmare to say No.

What if you can’t get yourself to say no?  The article doesn’t recommend just flat out saying “yes,” but saying yes slowly. 

Here’s how it goes.

Someone asks you to do something.

And, while nodding your head, you say “Sure – and let me just ask you a few questions first.”

And then you pick and chose from some of these questions. (Your goal is to ask at least three of these.)

  • Why are you asking me?
  • Who else have you asked?
  • When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
  • If I could only do part of this, what part would it be?
  • What part of this is something that only I could do?
  • What standard do you expect this to be done to?
  • Is this more urgent than X, Y and Z that are currently on my list?
  • Have you checked with [name] about me taking this on?
  • How does this contribute to [Great Work Project]?

You get the gist I’m sure. And I’ve no doubt that you can add some questions of your own.

When you start saying Yes More Slowly, one of four things happen.

First, the person will answer all your questions and make a very good case for your to say Yes. Which is fine – you’re saying Yes for all the right reasons.

Second, they’ll tell you to stop with the questions and get on with it. (Sadly, this isn’t a ‘silver bullet’ that will work all the time.)

Third, they’ll go away and find the answers to your questions – which at the very least will buy you some time.

And finally – and this is a good result – they’ll go and find someone else who’s less trouble, someone who hasn’t mastered the art of saying Yes Slowly.

Don’t say no if you know it’ll get you fired, and don’t say no if you can easily say yes (either because you have plenty of free time, or if your skills could really benefit the task at hand).  Just don’t get caught up in always saying “yes” when “no” is clearly an option.  To get comfortable in saying “no,” Tim Ferriss challenges the reader (in The 4-Hour Workweek) to say “no” to everything for two days straight, regardless of what it is, just to get comfortable saying no.  It seems a bit extreme, but maybe it would help.

At the end of the day, we want to be productive and efficient, producing high quality results while also maintaining our sanity and life outside of work and/or the office.  The only way to do this perfectly is to learn when to say “no” and master the way that you do it.

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